Editorials, Opinion

Proof teachers make a difference

Early this month, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of its triennial, global standardized test for 15-year-olds. More than half of the 81 participating countries saw declines in reading and math. In OECD member countries, reading performance fell by 10 points on average and by 15 points in math compared to 2018. (Testing was delayed because of COVID.)

The U.S. actually performed better than equally developed countries like Germany and Iceland: Our math scores only dropped by 13 points, and our reading scores were roughly the same. This is some good news to bolster us all after learning this summer that test scores within the U.S. still haven’t recovered to pre-COVID levels. That said, we might take note of the OECD’s findings.

After analyzing the results of all participating countries, the OECD found that not all the learning loss could be attributed to COVID school closures. Iceland, which saw some of the steepest drops in math scores, had limited school closures while Ireland, which earned one of the top rankings for reading, had longer closures.

The difference was in the support offered to teachers and students. The final report says, “Many other factors impacted learning during this period, such as the quality of remote teaching and levels of support granted to struggling students.” As Reuters reported, “Countries that provided extra teacher support during COVID school closures scored better and results were generally better in places where easy teacher access for special help was high. Poorer results tended to be … where schools reported teacher shortages.”

We know many places in the U.S. — especially in rural areas — struggled with remote learning, largely because of limited and unreliable access to high-speed internet. Fortunately, federal and state governments got the ball rolling on expanding and upgrading broadband throughout the country.

Unfortunately, those efforts can’t change the past and have a limited impact on the present. Of course, the other primary factor in better test scores was teachers.

Places with teacher shortages had poorer performances. Not surprising, since shortages usually result in a combination of larger class sizes — with less time for questions and individual attention — and educators teaching a subject in which they don’t specialize or haven’t been trained.

Performance also improved when teachers had support. The teacher shortage has been exacerbated by high turnover, more retirements and fewer people pursuing education as a career. We can’t stop retirements, but we can decrease the number of turnovers and increase the number of people entering the profession.

The go-to answer is usually related to pay, but sometimes the support teachers need isn’t strictly financial. Teachers pull double- and triple-duty as educators, unofficial counselors and mediators and stand-in parents to hundreds of kids, five days a week for nine months of the year.

On top of that, we have made educators and education political pawns in stupid culture war games. We can’t expect teachers to be able to excel in their jobs if they have to tip-toe around an ever-growing list of topics and continuously self-censor for fear of professional or personal reprisal.

All of that takes a mental and emotional toll, which leads to burnout. We can help them by taking some of the extra responsibilities off their plates (e.g., hiring counselors and even aides), by ensuring they have access to mental health care and by keeping culture war politics out of their classrooms.